“I’m freaking out on this train, I’m in tears. I’m like, “Oh, my God, how the universe just works, give you something that you thought you wanted, completely wipes your table off, and then gives you something you never expected.”
In the moment, Jari Jones was filled with overwhelming excitement about being invited to be a part of Calvin Klein’s 2020 Pride campaign #PROUDINMYCALVINS#, but she had no idea that her appearance would be vital for the body positivity movement. In celebration of Pride, Calvin Klein launched a nine-part video series featuring 9 rising stars in the community, each with a unique story to tell. The queer actress, filmmaker, and model graced a billboard in Manhattan, celebrating a huge accomplishment and bringing massive pride to the LGBTQ community.
Still, extensive discussions on Jari Jones’ appearance occur on platforms like Weibo. People argue that Jones doesn’t conform to the Chinese ideals of female beauty – fair skin, double eyelids, and a slim figure – the most appreciated physical characteristics under general Chinese beauty standards.
We should never neglect the power of culture, political unrest, and economic change on the shifting ideals of beauty. Before the appearance of the flapper style in the Roaring Twenties, women in the US were still wearing floor-length dresses. Waists were cinched. Arms and legs were covered. Victorian morality created a strict climate for the ideal beauty of women. At the time when World War I came to an end, however, the 19th amendment guaranteed American women the right to vote, women began attending college, and the flapper lifestyle rose, giving birth to an attractive, independent, reckless appearance and a shifting public preference for female beauty. The age of the flapper, however, came tumbling down suddenly at the beginning of the Great Depression, and soon gave way to the later popularized, more masculine way of dressing under the strict control of clothing production. As seen in history all over the world beyond the US, women had to keep fighting against the norms of clothing to get some control of their own bodies. They never stopped being disciplined and oppressed by the “acceptable” behaviour and appearance in society.
Here in China, the skinny and fair-skinned image targeted towards women has existed in our community for centuries, dating back to the earliest exposure to Western beauty ideals. But it isn’t just about being Western. There is a deeply rooted cultural notion that associates dark skin with manual labor, and obesity to laziness and indiscipline. Linguistic discrimination prevails in daily communication, including “Heigui” (黑鬼 – used to refer to blacks as “Negroes”) and “Sipangzi” (死胖子 – used to refer to obese people) as two of several other offensive terms used in common slang. At the same time that we reexamine these long-lasting, extensively-recognized, and close-minded preferences on female beauty, we should also look up to see what is going on in the rest of the world, what people of faraway lands are discussing and reaching consensus on. It’s not that we are thinking behind the times, but we should realize the challenges that are troubling different groups of people in society. This will help us understand other parts of the world better, which will in turn, enhance cultural blending and collaboration afterwards. Despite the fact that we should never encourage stereotyping beauty — especially problematic and narrow views of beauty, we should neither embrace the existence of a well-recognized “standard” of female beauty. Everyone has their own perspectives, and that’s why standards shouldn’t be adhered to. Singer Yamy recently made public a meeting record of her boss Mingchao Xu humiliating her on the basis of her appearance in a meeting with the entertainment company, while Xu refused to apologize to Yamy and was quoted making the excuse that she was being “too emotional.” In July, a female model in a school uniform at an anime exhibition was accused of making sexual suggestions with a kneeling pose that revealed her biker shorts (安全裤). Besides continuing the uncontested gender hierarchy and the othering of women, we are also neglecting women’s rights to their bodies, and the problematic oppression they’ve long been subjected to on the freedom of showing their bodies.
From another angle, aesthetics in fashion don’t necessarily coincide with good shape in health. Fried chicken is unhealthy, but we still enjoy seeing fried chicken ads and other forms of promotion from fried chicken shops, while other outlets (science programs, readings, etc.) will take the responsibility of telling people that fried chicken is unhealthy. Besides, Chinese ideals of female beauty continue to praise having skinny frames, so it’s just too early to argue that people are likely to be led overweight by these promotions. Encouraging people of all types of sizes doesn’t equate to neglecting the dangers of specific medical conditions like obesity. It’s important to separate health from an excuse to body-shame, since a lot of models, especially female models like Ashley Graham, an American fashion model and a popular proponent of body positivity, are regularly looked down upon for their appearance, even though they are completely healthy. When people with disabilities show up on advertisements, their images are usually valued as inspirational–Nike’s newly-released campaign video You Can’t Stop Us has attracted more than 42 million views on Youtube. However, when it comes to plus-size female models, there are always comments of them being “unattractive” and “discouraging.” We are striving collectively for equal rights of people with disabilities, so what’s our conclusion for different body sizes?
After all, besides leading a new definition of beauty and health, Calvin Klein’s pride campaign also focused on its profits. It actively responded to the irresistible tide of contemporary ethnic and sexual diversity, which consequently ensured the brand a secure position in business and a better brand impression among the public. Similarly, L’Oreal recently announced to remove words like “white/whitening,” “fair/fairness,” and “light/lightening” from all of its skin products, with the announcement coming amid anti-racism protests following George Floyd’s death. Calvin Klein’s billboard boldly challenged the traditional ideals of beauty, but our attitude towards those who are troubled by obesity and other medical conditions persists.
A major cause hindering obese people from losing weight is the rejection and discrimination from society. With a more tolerant attitude towards people of all sizes and an effort to abandon the deeply entrenched dislike towards them, we may come to realize that campaigns like Calvin Klein’s promote a more diverse production of clothing sizes, which can meet the demands of more groups of people, and not just Size 00 women. For decades, we’ve pushed unrealistic images of how females should look, and it’s time to stop solidifying body shaming in the collective conscience of our societies.
We should continue to look forward to joining in further discussions on the social conditions and equal rights of the LGBTQ community, while we actively seek to reflect on our long-existing obsession for thinness and pale skin from women. This is a starting point for us to build a more inclusive environment for individual body sizes, and colors.
This article was written by Siwei Gu currently based in Shanghai, China. Please reach out the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images